‘It was an unbelievable, indescribable feeling,’ says Mike Heads, practice principal at The Dental Healthcare Centre, when asked by Dentistry magazine to recall that fabulous evening last December. The practice scooped the Best Practice award for the highly competitive North East region during the event, held at Leicester’s Athena building. But the celebrating wasn’t over yet. As host Kriss Akabusi read out the final list of winners, it was revealed that The Dental Healthcare Centre had also won the overall Best Practice award for the whole of the UK.
It was a stunning double success and one that, admits Mike, came as quite a shock.
‘At the time when we won Best Practice in the North East we would have been very happy to walk away with that honour,’ he told us. ‘I can truly say that not one of us thought we would win Best Practice in the UK as the competition from all of the practices who entered was of an extremely high standard.
‘Having not entered any awards for over 10 years, apart from the Private Dentistry Awards which were a few weeks earlier, our confidence and belief in ourselves was still fairly tentative. When the award for Best Practice in the UK was announced, there was an initial gasp from everyone, followed by a total eruption of laughter and joy. We really didn’t expect to go back onto the stage that night to collect another trophy. I was on top of the world and was so pleased for the practice and the whole team that I asked for a text message to be sent to all of our patients to let them know the incredible news. We knew we had a great practice but it is not always easy to blow your own trumpet – it’s much easier sometimes to let the awards do the talking!
‘After 12 months of extremely hard work in the practice, we all felt as though we were being rewarded for our efforts and, not only that, the Award spurred us on as we realised that the hardest part of the whole process would be to maintain and improve our standards to ensure we can compete again next time.’
The enjoyment didn’t stop there, with news of their success spreading around the north east.
‘Our patients were extremely happy for us and we received numerous telephone calls and cards congratulating us,’ Mike adds. ‘We had not realised how much our patients appreciated the service we provide and the common comment from them was that we truly deserved the accolade. My son and daughter were really impressed and proud – it’s not often we get that reaction from our kids! Other practices thought it was a great honour for us, but also nice that the trophy had come to the north east and many of our suppliers sent flowers, even champagne.’
A large part of their success was putting together a strong portfolio that could convince the judges of what work was being done at the practice. ‘My wife, Linda – the practice director – took charge of compiling the entry, mainly as she has much more imagination, artistic and literary skills than me. The entry was unusual as it began with a recipe for a good practice, proceeded using culinary analogies, describing us as aiming for our “3 Michelin stars” and finished with the warning, “eat your heart out Gordon Ramsay.” Entries do take a considerable time to put together – from the initial stage of writing it to compiling photographs, testimonials and presenting the entry in a professional way. My wife’s office was littered with piles of photographs, paperwork and files until the process was complete.’
Mike admits that being able to demonstrate their successes (the practice’s website details their recent award victories, which on top of the Dentistry Awards includes winner of the ‘Most Improved Practice’ at the 2008 Private Dentistry Awards, and winner of the ‘Generosity of a Smile’ category at the 2009 National Smile Awards) is a big bonus.
‘It is extremely satisfying to do this because you feel as though you have evidence of what you are trying to tell your own patients and prospective patients i.e. that we really do have a great practice,’ he says. ‘Again, my wife takes control of keeping the website up-to-date – the trophies are all photographed and shown on the website. We also send press releases to newspapers, radio and TV and have had a reasonable amount of success with this, even interviews on the radio. We even had an extra radio advert made to advertise our award.
‘It is very difficult to directly attribute new patients to our awards success. Of course, we feel that the additional publicity the practice receives due to the awards and the way we are able to use the awards for marketing purposes is a significant factor in helping us increase our patient numbers.’
The success of the last few months is a culmination of years of hard work – although for Mike his career could have taken a very different path. ‘My first degree was in Agricultural zoology (crop pests and animal pests) – my uncle had a farm and I was always interested in this. Subsequent to my degree, I was offered a research post abroad, but I still hankered after doing something which involved hands-on work as I knew that that was where my real skill lay and more and more I felt that dentistry would be an ideal career for me. I was accepted at Leeds University to do dentistry.
I worked in a frozen food factory for one year to earn some money to pay for my first three years as I was not eligible for a grant until my fourth year and my wife, who was working by then, largely subsidised us until I qualified – I have been paying her back ever since!
‘I qualified at Leeds University in 1983 and during my finals, my wife had the bright idea that I should start my dental career where we wanted to put down our roots so that when we
eventually did want to set up our own practice, we would have good relations with all of the professional people who would need to help us. Her timing was superb; still during my finals, the house went up for sale and it was decided we’d move back to the Stockton area where our family lived. I passed my exams, found a job as an associate in Middlesbrough and we bought a house in Osmotherly.
‘One year down the line, we were looking for our own practice and set up a “squat” in Fairfield, Stockton. I worked during the day at my associate job and then I worked at my own practice in the early mornings, evenings and on a Saturdays. My wife left her job to be my one and only nurse/receptionist. We soon built up a strong reputation and the practice grew. I had two associates and we needed bigger premises at Fairfield, despite the fact I had already purchased the property next door. We had also opened a branch practice at Hartburn, just down the road to provide another surgery unit in the area. We also opened another flourishing practice in Barnard Castle 30 miles away where we lived.
‘Needing bigger premises in Fairfield we took the decision to build our own practice. Luckily, the NHS sold us some land next to the Health Clinic which was only round the corner from our existing practices. The Dental Healthcare Centre was opened in 1992 by Lord Stockton, the old Fairfield and Hartburn practices were closed and I sold the Barnard Castle practice in 2003.
‘I was able to expand on my interest in cosmetic and implant dentistry. Today, I have had in the region of 200 dentists who have referred their patients to us for implant and cosmetic treatment and we have a successful referral practice, Cleveland Cosmetic and Dental Implant Clinic, running alongside The Dental Healthcare Centre which provides routine Denplan care for our patients.
‘In 2006, after 23 years of working for the NHS, we made the decision to leave and have a totally private practice. Although the decision was very difficult, I can truthfully say that it is one of the best decisions I have made. Although there were very many processes to go through to get away from the treadmill mentality, we now have a practice where we can give our patients the very highest standards of patient care, cosseting them with the time and personal service we are able to provide in a stunning, contemporary environment.’
So what does Mike enjoy most about his job? ‘The best part is seeing a patient’s face light up when they have had their treatment completed. In some cases they are so happy they are reduced to tears – it’s very emotional, it really is about “changing faces, changing lives”.
‘I particularly enjoy cosmetic and implant dentistry, but in truth it’s like every job, when you know you have done something for someone and the work is spot on, then you get a tremendous amount of satisfaction out of it.’
With this success story behind him, Mike is well placed to voice his thoughts on how the future of UK dentistry will map out. He says: ‘As practices become bigger, providing a variety of dental, facial, cosmetic and beauty procedures, I really feel that the way forward for most new practices will be along these lines but with further extras – sports facilities, gyms, physios, swimming pools, doctors, psychiatrists etc. There will always be an entrepreneur out there who will find another avenue, product or service to make their dental practice different.’
So what tips would Mike give those budding practices aiming to emulate his team’s success story?
‘Reputation, reputation, reputation,’ he says. ‘If you get all or most of the component parts of your practice in good shape, you will soon build up your reputation and build your practice via your own patient recommendations. Good marketing is also very important – our practice is not in a high street situation or on a bus route, but people still know we are here. Being clued up about the return your investment will bring you is also essential – my wife and I are not very good at this as we tend to spend more of our profits than is necessary because we like for our patients what we would like ourselves.
‘The last tip is to be comfortable in providing the services you provide, know the extent of your skill and be happy with the standard of work you are providing.’
You could be one of the winners of the Dentistry Awards 2009!
Gain the recognition you deserve and enter by calling Elisa on 01923 851734 or visit www.dentistry.co.uk/awards2009 for an entry brochure.